Pony Tales

By Aaron Neilly

With low cost, fuel efficient compact cars being an ever popular mode of transportation, it’s amazing what level of appointments some “budget priced” cars are now available with, even as base models. Air conditioning, power windows, tilt steering, cruise control, Bluetooth integration and alloys wheels have become commonplace on many cheaper cars.

This wasn’t always the case. Don’t like the feeling of vinyl seats after your car has been sitting in the hot sun all day? Pony up!

Just over thirty years ago, Canada had its first glimpse of a now massive auto producer. We were considered a test market for a “new” small car, a cheap car, an alternative to the notorious Russian built Lada, which, much like cheap vodka, left a bad taste in many customers’ proverbial mouths.

Hyundai Motors had been selling a small, rear wheel drive hatchback called the “Pony” in foreign markets for a number of years. It was a simple car, sketched up by Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro, (famous for the DeLorean, VW Rabbit/Golf/Scirocco, and hundreds more) using almost “universal” mechanical parts sourced from a number of other vehicles. The car had sold well in its native Korea, as well as Europe, with other markets to be filled. Hyundai even used Canada as a winter testing ground prior to bringing the cars here.

The first officially imported Pony, an ’84 model, arrived on Canadian soil in late 1983, with the intention to sell 5,000 units in the first year. The car was priced at $5900, just a bit higher than the Lada, but with the reputation the Lada had for poor build quality, the second cheapest car sold in Canada was starting to look like a fantastic option for many Canadians, especially since the car came with a comparable warranty to much pricier cars. A few more than 5,000 Canadians thought this was a good idea, in fact. First year sales figures were closer to 25,000 cars.

Now, back to that “standard features” list. For a car that was priced only slightly higher than a communist built rip-off of a 20 year old Fiat, the base model Pony wasn’t exactly… luxurious.

A copy of the standard and optional features list I found on eBay suggests that maybe Hyundai was trying pretty hard to push the standard features the Pony came with.

One particular listed feature available at no extra cost on all trim levels? Carpet.

Passenger side exterior mirrors are a great thing to have for changing lanes, checking your blind spot, and being a safe driver in general. Yeah, well, that’ll cost you extra.       Same as cloth seats.

Clock? Not happening, unless you get the luxurious Pony “GLS.” A great car for people who enjoy listening to music while driving, because that one comes with a radio. (A tape deck was also available at an added cost.)

The GLS version was also equipped with a larger 1.6 litre engine with close to 10 more horsepower than the rather anemic 1.4 the base model came with. The engines were Mitsubishi built, both designs well over a decade old at the time. The 1.4 actually was used as an industrial engine until very recently, continuing to chug along in countless forklifts around the world. In short; the Pony was an antiquated car, even when it was brand new here.

With a manual choke, which even drivers of the humble VW beetle hadn’t seen since the early ‘60s, a point and condenser ignition system that wanted very badly to be British and a steering mechanism that would have been right at home in a tractor, the car had its quirks. The Pony I briefly drove in high school would start running on two cylinders if there was a cloud in the sky within ten miles. If it actually rained, I couldn’t go anywhere that required an uphill ascent. If it was snowing, the rear wheel drive in such a lightweight car would ensure you went into the ditch before you actually reached a hill.

Unfortunately, the Pony had another far more serious flaw. In areas where roads were salted in the winter, they started to rust in about a year. Most were disposed of within seven or eight years, but in defense of that, that’s less than $1000 of depreciation a year. Your move, Cadillac!

Ponies have all but galloped away from Canadian roads, and were never sold in the USA as they didn’t meet emission regulations there. The last time I saw a Pony on the road was at least 15 years ago. That was until  April, 2016, when I found a little silver base model on Kijiji where it was described as “having less rust than a five year old Mazda,” which could still mean “some welding required.”

It was beautiful. A wonderful specimen of the temperamental little car that I hadn’t seen or driven since my teenage years had survived the decades, and it had arrived at our meeting place under its own power – in the rain!

“Sorry it’s not running too well!” the owner explained. “They just don’t like the rain!”

I didn’t even test drive it. The body was in amazing condition. It smelled just like I remembered.  The dashboard plastics had all faded to a different shade of blue, and the familiar, very mechanical, door chime still worked with a high pitched “ding-dong, ding-dong” noise.

I drove the car home a week later, fortunately on a very dry day. It ran exactly the way I recalled, with some stumbling and the odd cough or sputter, but the three hour trip home on the 401 went without a hitch. It was also the first time I had other drivers give me the “thumbs up” while laughing at me.

It was shortly after this that I decided to stop at the local Hyundai dealership to order some tune-up parts. The parts manager thought I was joking  until another employee looked out the window and gasped, “Is… that a Pony?!”

A Ferrari wouldn’t  have attracted as much attention as the Pony.  It was instantly surrounded by sales staff, like it was some kind of unicorn.

And no, they couldn’t order any tune-up parts for it. A bit of online research solved that problem, and I was able to source every part needed to spruce up the ancient ignition system, albeit for a cost: $26 (US) for everything.

And now my Pony runs in the rain. I put over 8,000 km on it last summer, without so much as a burned-out light bulb. It’s delightful to drive. It makes people laugh and smile. Oh, and it gets roughly the same fuel economy as most hybrids.

The stories are the best part. I’m a diehard classic VW enthusiast, and when you drive an old Beetle, people always approach you with stories of how great the Bug they had 40 years ago was. With the Pony, it’s how cheap it was, a list of things that went wrong with it –  and how much they loved it

I understand the love thing. Now, if only I could find a Yugo.